Mar 12, 2012 - Educational Politics    Comments Off

What is the REAL Question?

Much of my “academic” thought revolves around the role and purpose of education, the role of politics and government in education, the use of technology to enhance learning, standardized testing and curriculum, and what it means to be “educated” in the world we live in today (and will live in tomorrow). I’ve been known to go on rants about the current state of education, in California and elsewhere, because I see the impact of poor political choices on the students I teach (and on my own kids, for that matter). It’s something I think about a lot.

Every once in a while an idea catches my attention in a way that pulls together divergent thoughts into a coherent whole. Today I read a Facebook status update that led to a post about tech support that brought me to a rant titled “A snarky conspiracy theory about why the arts have been kicked out of school” by Linda Polin, an educator that I have the highest respect for. Given that I consider myself a STEM educator because of my involvement with robotics, I am very aware that the arts are a marginalized, but necessary, part of creativity and innovation. The most interesting solutions to problems that I give my students always involve very creative thinking, something that is tricky to measure on standardized, fill-in-the-bubble tests. I agree that we need to include the “A” (for arts) in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math initiatives (STEAM).

The entire rant is worth reading, but this section in particular caught my attention:

In artistic construction the artist/writer/photography/dancer/actor shares a personal interpretation that includes not just her understanding but her attitude, her perception (which itself includes socicultural material as well). There aren’t right answers in the arts, but there *is* precision. There isn’t consensus, but there *is* discussion and negotiation.  So why wouldn’t we want the arts in school curricula? Well, at the moment, and for quite a while now (mmm, two decades? three?), education has been repurposed as a political system to measure the progress of the country (as opposed to its original purpose, which was to educate the citizenry.)

We are more interested in answers than questions. We are more interested in convergence than divergence. We are more interested in standards than innovation. We are more interested in righteousness than humanity. So the arts have to go, they’re nothing but trouble-makers. Sadly this leaves us with machinists rather than designers, in a world economy where machinists can be had in other countries for a lot less coin. Perhaps it’s an accidental conspiracy, but it’s rather solidly ingrained. The educational arguments seem to focus on how best to teach and how best to measure the narrow list of skills we have chosen for learners. The basic assumption of the curricula is never questioned by the public or the legislature (oh well, I don’t mean Texas; let’s not even grace that craziness with discussion.)

That one line – We are more interested in answers than questions – was an “ah ha!” moment. So much of what I have been reading and listening to lately has to do with asking the right questions, although in the context of business and leadership. It absolutely applies to education as well. “You don’t know what you don’t know”  is one of those truisms that you come across as you go into grad school and beyond. I remember realizing that grad school wasn’t where you got all the answers. It was where you came to the understanding that there was much out there that you didn’t know and you (hopefully) developed the skills to ask the right questions to find out what you needed to know. The more I know, the more I realize just how much more there is to learn.

It seems like our K12 educational system is so focused on getting the right answers that they don’t teach kids how to come up with good questions. One of the very most irritating questions I would get every semester as a community college teacher was “What do I need to know to pass the test?“. Really?  You have the world at your fingertips, you have more opportunities and access to knowledge than any previous generation, you can learn anything that you want to learn, and THAT is the question you ask? Well, sure. What else to expect from students who have been indoctrinated since kindergarten to fill in bubbles and learn what they need to know to pass the test?

What happens to kids who ask too many questions? The ones who are too curious about everything except what is in the standardized curriculum they are spoon fed every day? If they are very lucky, they come across an exceptional educator who recognizes and nurtures that spirit, despite the system they are forced to work within. They learn to work around the system to learn what they need to know, despite the roadblocks in the way. What political implications does this have? I’m not much into conspiracy theories myself, but it doesn’t take much to imagine where our current educational policies will lead us…

 

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